The perfect storm.
Many have used that figure of speech to describe the devastating fire on Maui that left at least 115 people dead and more than 100 unaccounted for. It seems the only apt descriptor to justify the unique and rare conditions that sent residents leaping into the ocean or trapped in their burning homes, unable to escape.
Increasingly, conditions for a perfect storm may not be so rare, leaving all islands, including the San Juans, more and more vulnerable to a similar disaster.
The San Juan Islands look different from tropical Hawaii. Rainy winters and sunny summers create another kind of paradise, featuring thick evergreen forests and yellowed summer fields. While the two sets of islands are dissimilar on the surface, each is similarly affected by climate changes that are rapidly drying and warming even the wettest places.
Wildfires in the San Juan Island are rare. A few small fires burn structures, grasses and occasionally forests each summer, said Fire Chief Adam Bigby of Lopez Island. Fires tend to be noticed and put out quickly by a small group of firefighters, many of whom are volunteers. There is seldom lightning in the islands; almost all fires are caused by humans whose brush piles or machinery ignite the dry summer vegetation.
The San Juans’ landscapes luckily have many natural protective qualities such as a morning fog layer caused by the surrounding ocean, mild temperatures and moderate humidity as well as a long rainy season.
Indigenous land management
Coast Salish people once carefully managed the island’s forests through routine burning practices every 6 to15 or so years, said Paul Andersson, District Manager for the San Juan Islands Conservation District. These fires served multiple functions. They helped to enhance the growth of camas, a food staple, and other vegetation, and they drove wild game into areas for hunting. They also contribution to healthy forests. When settlers moved in in the late 1800s, many areas were heavily logged and when forests grew back, they were no longer controlled by burns.
While deceptively beautiful, San Juan forests are “terribly overstocked, unhealthy forests,” due to the lack of forest fire in the past century, Andersson said. The picturesque old-growth forests natural in the Pacific Northwest require ample space between trees; otherwise there is too much competition for water and nutrients, which dries up soil moisture. In these forests, there should be 30 to 50 stems (the base of a tree) per acre. Island forest average 400 to 500 stems per acre, with many “pencil-size trees.”
“These thinner trees are going to burn up a lot more quickly,” Andersson said. Without forest management and with the help of climate change, it’s not a matter of if, but when, the big burn will come.
According to a University of Washington Climate Impacts Group wildfire risk report published in 2019, Western Washington, as recently as the early 1900s, saw large, moderate-to-severe fires burn every few centuries. Now, it’s nearly every year.
Since 1973, the length of fire seasons, the area burned, and the number of fires over 1,000 acres have dramatically increased. “The average area burned each year in the Pacific Northwest is expected to more than triple by the 2040s (relative to 1916-2006) if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a moderate rate,” the report stated.
In the past few years, smoke from forest fires to the east have covered the islands, an ominous sign that fires are creeping farther and farther west through the state. For some, it’s a reminder of the dangers of wild areas.
“A big part of my job is reminding people that by choosing to live in the islands, they have chosen to live in a wilderness setting,” said Brendan Cowan, Director of the San Juan County Department of Emergency Management. According to the 2018 Hazard Mitigation report, San Juan County is considered a wildland-urban interface, or WUI (pronounced woo-e). A WUI is “the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels,” according to FEMA.
WUI’s are inherently dangerous places. Washington has one of the highest number of WUI communities, and in the U.S., 60,000 WUI communities are considered at-risk for fire. As more people move into rural areas each year, this fire zone is growing by approximately 2 million acres per year. This is true on the islands as well, where the population has steadily grown to 18,000 residents over the past 50 years.
San Juan county’s designation as a wildland-urban interface makes this growing population by definition an “at-risk community.” While the islands have adopted the minimal code required by the State of Washington for fire-safe buildings, they have not adopted the optional additional standards for WUI communities.” This is due to a lack of resources, largely financial, according to the Hazard Mitigation Plan.
Lack of fire-fighting resources
Rural communities such as the San Juans lack many resources that can allow for higher safety precautions. The newly implemented “reverse 911 system,” which will alert residents through text or phone calls of an imminent natural disaster, is the greatest protective measure currently in place. But evacuation can be challenging with few roadways and only so many places to go on a small landmass.
In addition, help can be hard to find. On Lopez Island, Bigby has four paid staff members and relies on about 20 volunteers if a large fire were to occur. On smaller islands not accessible by the ferry, there are no firefighters or fire stations. A fire there would require a mutual-aid response, or bringing resources from other islands; never easy or fast by boat.
On Lopez, there are no firefighters on call at night and no space for staff to work in the current fire station. Bigby says to meet modern needs, four fire engines need to be replaced at a cost of $780,000 each. In addition, a new fire station would need to be built because the current station is four feet too short to house the new, longer trucks. These are “multimillion dollar upgrades. Takes years, [and] we are always behind, we’re always playing catch up,” he said.
Understaffed, under-resourced, and underpaid, island firefighters work in a county experiencing an affordable housing crisis that is pushing lower-wage workers including emergency responders off the island.
Equally concerning, says Bigby, is that access to water is highly limited. Most water systems are privately owned by homeowner’s associations and “are way under what’s needed for fire protection,” said Bigby. In addition, few remote areas on the islands have hydrants, requiring water to be brought to the site.
As in many rural areas, there are no federal firefighting resources to immediately assist in case of a fire. Federal resources are only designated for federal lands, of which the county has little. “Our connections to the mainland are actually quite brittle, [and it] takes a long time for help to arrive,” said Cowan. Even than, a federal response can only be expected in case of devastation, as on Maui.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time the risk is actually pretty manageable,” Cowan said. “Local resources will continue to do a good job.” Furthermore “where fire risk is really high, in those very rare conditions for a catastrophic fire, having more equipment or more volunteers is not going to make a significant difference to fight that fire.” To Cowan, emergency management is a matter of hoping for the best, while planning for the worst, but within all of it, acknowledging limitations.
Bigby and Cowan repeatedly emphasized the importance of individual action when it comes to emergency preparedness, especially on isolated islands far from help.
This means clearing brush, following burn bans, removing fire hazards and most important, looking out for neighbors. As part of this, all San Juan fire departments conduct free home fire safety checks using federal Firewise guidelines. Making sure one’s driveway is accessible for a large fire truck, which is often not the case in more forested parts of the islands, is a critical step, Bigby emphasized. Volunteering as a firefighter, for those who are able, is another. When fires come, “gosh, it’s nice to have enough people,” he said.
Past practices for the future
While the future of fire on the islands may be uncertain, Andersson finds hope in the practices of the past.
In his work with the conservation district, he and his team have applied for federal and state grants to help manage the islands’ forests, as the Coast Salish did for thousands of years. “There’s a lot of work to make up for lost time now with the realization that things need to change,” Andersson said.
Many acres of forests are privately owned in the islands. It is expensive to thin forests and to amend a property for fire safety, Andersson said. And in a place with few fires, forest management is often not on the mind of landowners. To address this, the conservation district conducts extensive free assessments of private properties at the request of landowners. Based on the assessment, the landowner can apply for funding to make their property safer. Professional thinning of forests, clearing debris and making structure safer, among other amendments, are all available through the conservation district program.
Andersson is also working to get funding to take on broader forest thinning across many publicly owned lands on the islands. But, “There aren’t enough crews or money to go around for people to prioritize it,” he said. In addition, it can take years to apply for and receive funding from the government for such projects.
Andersson, however, is hopeful. “There’s an opportunity here for a much larger scale, bigger picture approach,” he said. “We’re trying to bring as much money into the community as possible from different agencies.”
In a recent public statement, Gov. Josh Green of Hawaii said ,”Over time, we’ll be able to figure out if we could have better protected people.” As the fire season slowly comes to a close on the San Juan Islands, there is still the gift of time to put these plans in place. And there is hope, unlike in Maui, that it will happen before disaster strikes. Ultimately, the fate of one island may in fact be the necessary wake-up call to save others.
“An open letter to the San Juan County community about wildfire risk and preparedness in the islands” from fire chiefs and emergency response leaders throughout the islands details risks and preparedness strategies.
— Reported by Kathryn Wheeler